Brisbane’s trailblazers are reinvigorating punk, and they’re doing it on their own terms. Words by Matt Doria. Photo by Reece Erdman.
After topping the ranks in our 2016 Bigsound Top Ten (Australian Guitar #118), WAAX have had an enormous first half of 2017. It’s not hard to see why: their second EP, Wild & Weak, is five precise slices of pure sonic euphoria, strewn in dizzy, melodic vocals and numbing lead sections. The quintet are bringing a fresh flavour to a fast-stagnating Australian punk scene, and though their riffs are scorching and their noodling tight, they’re zesting things up by rethinking how guitars make their mark on a song.
“Our mantra has always been to make things contemporary and to do something different,” says string-splitter Chris Antolak, “Rather than just follow what everybody else is doing. When we were writing these songs, grungy guitars were a really big thing with bands like Violent Soho, DZ Deathrays and Dune Rats – all amazing bands, but we felt like we didn’t want to walk down that path. There was a conscious decision in that to play more single notes than chords [on Wild & Weak]. We wanted to explore the atmosphere within the music; the guitar doesn’t have to be the driving instrument in a song, or it doesn’t have to be as dominating as it often is.”
It’s unlikely Antolak would have said the same thing a few years ago: there’s a far cry in vibe between the gritty, abrasive shredding that pads WAAX’s Holy Sick EP (2015) and the airy, tense bends on Wild & Weak.
“Before this experience, we’d dial everything up to 11 and just blast away without a care,” he laughs. “But the more you evolve as a musician, the more you understand that your sound is something you develop for yourself. And if you want to develop or clean up your sound, go nuts – y’know, that doesn’t make you any less of a punk. That’s what we did, and if anything, we’ve received more compliments than complaints about our guitar tones.”
“I think one of the things I’ve learned through [Wild & Weak’s] process has been that sometimes, less is more,” chimes in co-shredder Ewan Birtwell, “Especially when it comes to distortion. People tend to think that with this style of music, the more distortion you pack into it, the better it will sound. But if you dial it back a bit, you can get a lot of clarity while still retaining that heavy impact.”
A new take on tone was met with a new take on songwriting. Rather than scribble notes on the road or piece cuts together in isolated bursts, Antolak and frontwoman Marie DeVita dedicated large blocks of isolated time to crafting new bangers. In particular, Antolak says the writing process for lead single “This Everything” spurred a new creative direction for the band.
“[Marie and I] had a day on the Gold Coast together where we burrowed ourselves away and just listened to a lot of vinyl,” he explains, “Just trying to get really inspired with music and feel innocent with it again. Because you can get so lost in understanding music; when you become a musician or a songwriter, you need to understand everything about your craft. We kind of just wanted to forget all of that and be fans again, just pick up instruments and see what we could come up with. That idea of going away and disconnecting from social media – getting away from the outside world so we can be focused enough to actually demo things – that seems to be the trick for us.”
WAAX’s looser approach to writing is largely what led to the grueling two-year gap between releases. But it paid off in the end: rather than stick to rigid deadlines and schedules imposed by a record label, the band decided they would work on their own terms, taking each day as it comes and only setting goals where goals needed to be set.
“It was easy in the sense that we only had the pressure that we put on ourselves,” offers Antolak. “There was no management or anybody else telling us we needed to have songs written. We took the initiative and went away ourselves to write, and we actually made a promise to ourselves that we’d have slightly bigger ambitions than we needed. We went in there saying, ‘We’re gonna write and record five songs this weekend!’ and then ended up writing five but recording four. We put our own pressure on our backs because we wanted to get this record done; we wanted to prove to ourselves that we could do this and continue to write songs – and so far, that’s worked out for us.”
Writing for the next release – a debut album, Birtwell slips – is well underway. They plan to follow a timeline in the footsteps of Wild & Weak, but are quick to note their openness to any possible course of action. “I think the unspoken plan is to write no less than 40 songs and then figure it out from there,” remarks Antolak, teasing that fans will hear new jams sooner than later either way.